Myths of the Cherokee (James Mooney)

Week 13: Native American Tales - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Cherokee People

The Cherokee people, who call themselves "Tsalagi," are the largest Native American group in the United States today. They originally lived in the Appalachian mountains in what are now the southeastern United States: Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and further south. The first encounter between European people and the Cherokee people took place when Hernando de Soto landed in Florida and then traveled throughout the southern United States in 1540 and 1541, searching for gold.

Contact with Europeans proved devastating for the Cherokee, particularly in the 18th century, when smallpox ravaged the population; it is estimated that approximately half of the Cherokee population died in a smallpox outbreak in 1738-39. In the early 19th century, the surviving Cherokee population was limited to a a remnant of their former territories, largely confined to the south Tennessee and north Georgia.

In 1817, missionaries came to the Cherokee, teaching Christianity, as well as promoting the use of the English language. In order to promote the use of Cherokee instead of English, Sequoyah created a special syllabary for written Cherokee. Thanks to this Cherokee writing system, newspapers and other publications began appearing in Cherokee in the 1820's. In 1827, the Cherokee declared themselves to be the "Cherokee Nation", with a constitution and a democratically elected government whose capital was in New Echota, Georgia.

But in 1830, the US Congress passed the "Indian Removal Act" which compelled Indians living east of the Mississippi to move west. After years of legal and political protest by the Cherokee, the US Army began its invasion of the Cherokee nation in 1838, driving the people into stockades. Then, during the winter of 1839, the Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma; this march is called today the "Trail of Tears." In Cherokee it is called "Nunna daul Tsuny", "The Trail Where They Cried". Thousands of Cherokee people died along the Trail of Tears, and only a small population of Cherokee people escaped the relocation and remained in the east. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee set up a new capital in Tahlequah. In 1990, there were 370,000 Cherokee living in the United states, mostly in the western states, with a small remnant (approximately 6000 people) in the "eastern band" living in North Carolina.

James Mooney

James Mooney was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1861. His parents were Irish immigrants. From his childhood, Mooney was fascinated by Native American culture, and in 1885 he began his lifelong career as an anthropologist (ethnologist) for the Smithsonian Institute. Mooney is best known for his book-length report following the massacre at Wounded Knee, "The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890," which was published by the Smithsonian in 1896. The Ghost-Dance was a revivalist religion that had spread throughout many Indian tribes in the 1880's, centered on the Paiute messiah figure named Wovoka. Here is how Mooney described his research on the Ghost-Dance following the Wounded Knee massacre:

In the fall of 1890, the author was preparing to go to Indian Territory, under the auspices of the Bureau of Ethnology, to continue research among the Cherokee, when the Ghost dance began to attract attention, and permission was asked and received to investigate that subject also among the wilder tribes in the western part of the territory. [...] The first visit of about four months (December 1890-April 1891) was made to the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Caddo, and Wichita, all living together in the western part of what was then Indian Territory, but is now Oklahoma. [...] After returning and attending to the labeling and arranging of the collection, a study was made of all documents bearing on the subject in possession of the Indian Office and the War Department. Another trip was then made to the field for the purpose of investigating the dance among the Sioux, where it had attracted the most attention, and among the Paiute, where it originated. On this journey the author visited the Omaha, Winnebago, Sioux of Pine Ridge, Paiute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho; met and talked with the messiah himself, and afterward, on the strength of this fact, obtained from the Cheyenne the original letter containing his message and instructions to the southern tribes. This trip occupied another three months. [Mooney describes other trips in conjunction with this study.] The field investigation therefore occupied twenty-two months, involving nearly 32,000 miles of travel and more or less time spent with about 20 tribes. To obtain exact knowledge of the ceremony, the author took part in the dance among the Arapaho and Cheyenne. He also carried a kodak and a tripod camera, with which he made photographs of the dance and the trance both without and within the circle. From the beginning every effort was made to get a correct statement of the subject.

As Mooney's account shows, he was both a scientist and a bureaucrat - and he was also deeply involved himself with the tribes whose activities he was struggling to document, given the means available to him at the time. You can read online a fascinating article by Thomas W. Kavanagh about Mooney's original photographs and the photographs and illustrations as they were published in the Ghost-Dance book: Imaging and Imagining the Ghost Dance: James Mooney's Illustrations and Photographs. Many of the Cherokee photographs in this week's image gallery were taken by Mooney in 1888.

After his research on the Ghost-Dance, Mooney focused his attention on the Cherokee, and he lived with the eastern band of the Cherokee from 1887 until 1890. The result was another Smithsonian publication, "The Myths of the Cherokee" which is the source for this week's readings. Mooney also published "The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee" which is a record, in Cherokee and in English translation, of the ritual practices of a Cherokee shamanic healer.

James Mooney continued his study of Native American religious traditions throughout his life. In the 1890's he began working closely with the Kiowa in Oklahoma, and employed many Kiowa artists who created the Kiowa drawings which are in the Smithsonian collections. You can also see some pages from Mooney's notebooks online at the Smithsonian.

Mooney was instrumental in the founding of the Native American Church, which was incorporated in Oklahoma City in 1918. The Native American Church attempts to blend Native American religious practices with Christian beliefs. The Church is controversial for many reasons, and James Mooney's involvement in the establishment of the Church has made him a controversial figure as well. Among Cherokees, there are disputes about how "authentic" it is to promote this pan-Indian religion. As far as the United States government is concerned, the Church is controversial because of its ritual use of peyote, a practice which has often been subject to federal prosecution. In 1970, the federal government granted special recognition for the use of peyote in the rituals of the Native American Church, but in 1990 the Supreme Court removed federal protection for these practices, and the Church now falls under the jurisdiction of state laws. The Church has approximately 250,000 members today, throughout the western United States.

Mooney died in 1921; at the time of his death, he was working on a study of Kiowa and Kiowa Apache heraldry traditions.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM